LA Stormwater Measure: Can We Keep the City Honest?

EASTSIDER-Now that the voters have approved LA County Stormwater Measure W with a 69% vote in favor of the parcel tax, let’s look at what the voters actually bought. 

While the ballot arguments were full of all the wonderful “Safe, clean (green) water” programs that the measure will fund, the truth is that the only statutory purpose of the parcel tax is to clean up the water that goes out into the ocean. Period. 

Here’s the exact language from the Ordinance: 

The District shall use the Special Parcel Tax revenues to pay the costs and expenses of carrying out Projects and Programs to increase Stormwater or Urban Runoff capture or reduce Stormwater or Urban Runoff pollution in the District in accordance with criteria and procedures established in this Chapter. “ 

Of course, to get the measure passed, all kinds of fake promises were made. For example, our fearless Mayor, Eric Garcetti proudly announced in the Argument in Favor of Measure W, that it ”...creates the Safe, Clean Water Program, a comprehensive action plan to increase local water supplies, clean up contaminated water to protect public health and the environment, and prepare our region for drought” 

Right. 

Don’t Bother to Challenge the Bill 

The way that the size of your “impermeable” square footage was determined was by someone flying over all the parcels in LA County and using image manipulation to calculate the number. You will be able to go online and see your bill. Then compare it with the spiffy language in Measure W on cost to taxpayers and see how you really fared. 

And don’t bother with a challenge. Unless you have a really big parcel or are a good-sized corporation, you don’t stand a chance. As I mentioned before, there are only two grounds for appeal -- either a mathematical error in the calculation, or a “significant discrepancy” between “the assessed and the actual Impermeable Area.” So good luck with that (you can read the earlier article here.  

Guess who defines both? 

About LA City’s Piece of the Action 

The Ordinance provides that 40% of the proceeds go to municipalities, and Los Angeles City is estimated to be about 30% of the County for purposes of Measure W. That will give you a very rough estimate of the amount of funds directly available to LA City for projects. 

In terms of how LA spends its share of the spoils, there is going to be a huge fissure opening up as to whether our money is going to be spent for the supposed purpose of the Measure, and how much of it will be allocated to the kind of feel-good vanity projects that Garcetti and the City Council are so famous for. 

Remember, in order to get the tax passed, there was a whole page of weasel words that can mean almost anything. Check out the Program Elements (Sec.16.5), starting at page 13 of the actual Ordinance. Not only is the language dense, it is critical because there will be two LA City Agencies overseeing this process. One is the infamous LA City Sanitation District, and the other is the Department of Water and Power. 

Unfortunately, the lead agency of the two is the Sanitation Department, (LASAN) whose core functions are laid out in their Mission Statement as Wastewater Collection, Treatment and Disposal, Watershed Protection, and Solid Waste Collection, Recycling and Disposal. 

Remember, our very own LA Sanitation District is in fact a mere City Department where the Mayor directly appoints the Department Head who serves at Hiz Honor’s pleasure. Shocking that they therefore have a history of vanity projects for the Council and Mayor, as well as a rapacious interest in grabbing money no matter what. All of which you and I pay for. 

As a prime example, do you remember the Zero Waste and Dirty Politics debacle? 

While you can read all about it in my 2016 article, the takeaway was that after a four year plus fight, opposed by the City’s own CAO, we wound up with the following: 

So we’re left with higher costs, more regulation, bigger fees, and a whole new bureaucracy for Sanitation. Way to go, Jose! 

The Role of the DWP 

I know it may sound odd to cast the DWP as the good guy in anything, but there is truth to the proposition in this case. Because the DWP is the other entity in the City with overlapping and vested interests in these Measure W funded projects. DWP is basically an engineering company and supplies our water and electricity. As such, they have a history of looking for the highest value for the lowest cost on their projects. 

In terms of Measure W projects, it is likely that the DWP will either be a partner or be asked to participate financially in some of them. What most folks don’t know is that the DWP has an internal analysis they often use which essentially looks at the costs they avoid when they simply purchase water. Sort of, which is cheaper and are the higher costs of the project warranted? 

What all this means is that if they wanted to, the DWP could use the same analysis they use when the DWP itself gets involved in a stormwater capture project, without any other Measure W partners. 

DWP could do what it is already doing -- separating the base costs and the total project costs for all stormwater capture projects. They do this over a ten-year planning horizon. 

The base funding costs includes only project elements that are functionally essential to developing new water supplies, while the total project costs include other items like aesthetic, recreation, or community-based preferences (the “social” costs). But it would be better for ratepayers if they published these two different costs for each project, and ranked their projects twice, for base costs and total costs. 

Even better, in publishing the base costs and project total costs for all proposed and ongoing stormwater capture projects, they are projected over a ten-year planning horizon, without regard to ownership, Measure W support or other factors. The base funding costs include only project elements that are functionally essential to developing new water supplies, while the total DWP funding costs include all DWP costs 

You can probably see where I’m going here. When the Mayor, a Council Office, or one of the many Committees set up under Measure W want to ram through some favorite vanity project that goes way beyond what Measure W is supposed to do, there is a good engineering company out there (DWP) which can give us a reality check on honest cost-effectiveness.  

And we the ratepayers already own it, which is pretty cool. A potential opportunity to provide a check and balance to any expensive, well-intended fee- good vanity projects that really shouldn’t be funded by the parcel tax. 

O Lord, the City Council Sans 

Never let it be said that the Council and the Sanitation Dept. let the grass grow under their feet when it comes to spending money. No sir, back in June 2018, before the County even decided to place Measure W on the ballot, the Bureau of Sanitation sent an extensive memo to the Council on how to spend the money, with an emphasis on “Environmental Justice.”  

You can find the details in two Council Motions; 18-0384 asking DWP and Sanitation to report back on what the measure would mean for the City, and 17-0360, asking both Departments to report back on how “their infrastructure and operations incorporate Environmental Justice,” again with reference to a Measure W. You can find a link to LA Sanitation response here.  

Just a couple of key points. First, “The funding from the SCW Program will alleviate financial liability of the City’s General Fund and ensure that necessary investments are funded to comply with the stormwater permits and mandates.” In other words, it’s an accounting gimmick to shift costs.  

Second, check out this inadvertent honesty. “The Regional Program provides no less than 85% of the funding to develop and implement multi-benefit projects with focus on disadvantaged communities.” I leave it to more facile minds than my own, but does anyone smell a rat over “where’s the other 15% come from,” and gee, what about the other communities, whoever they may be? Think bonds (and yes, Measure W specifically authorizes them). 

I won’t even go into Sanitation’s $1 billion dollar 5-year plan for disadvantaged communities, or their even groovier $3.5 billion dollar 5-year Capital Improvement Program. You can read all about them in the report. Even as the Mayor and the Council salivate. 

The Takeaway 

While there are lots of open questions about Oversight, the Watershed Committees, and ramping up the bureaucratic pieces of Measure W, they are all behind closed doors for the moment. What we can do, is concentrate on following and analyzing the money. 

At the risk of being an optimist, there may be a way for we the ratepayers to get a nosh of control over this feeding frenzy. Evidently Krekorian and Martinez are worried that the San Fernando Valley could lose out in the project process, since it’s really, really expensive to remediate polluted underground water. So they just made a Motion (which you can read here.)  

It requires “LADWP  and LASAN must work collaboratively to both remediate and recharge the aquifer.”  They also require that “LADWP and LSAN, be directed to develop a plan that specifically details their efforts to collaboratively work together to address this contamination within the SFB, including past and future conveyance, capture, and recharge projects that both agencies are undertaking and proposed funding sources for each project.” 

Put it all together and it is the perfect opportunity to have the LADWP assume a fiscal analysis role in all these Measure W Projects. We know from past experience that LASAN’s math skills are negligible, while their political antennae are awesome! 

So why not ask DWP to do their very measured cost/benefit analysis on the Measure W projects, and share that information with the DWP, the Council, and for that matter, the public? In fact, it seems to me that this would be a perfect opportunity to have the Ratepayer Advocate weigh in. And maybe we could even get the Council Committee to buy in, too.

 

(Tony Butka is an Eastside community activist, who has served on a neighborhood council, has a background in government and is a contributor to CityWatch.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.